Piano Rhythm

Now that you have a basic understanding of how notes and pitch work on the piano, we are going to take a look at another fundamental part of music: RHTHYM.

Rhythm will probably be a very familiar term to you. This is because rhythm plays such a hugely important role in music. In fact, in genres such as rap, rhythm is the sole basis of the style!

Rhythm is what makes you want to get up and dance at a concert or to the radio, or tap the steering wheel when you're listening to the radio in the car. Everyone is affected by rhythm as it is a fundamental part of our existence. At the most basic level, rhythm keeps us alive. Our own heartbeat is the first rhythm that we know - the rhythm of life to steal the words from the song!

Rhythm has an equally important part in music as melody…perhaps even more important, as rhythm can exist without melody, but a melody must always have a rhythm.

Think of all the music genres that are based around their own singular beat. There are so many: reggae, swing, ragtime…to name just a few.

On paper, rhythm is shown like this:

You’ve already seen crotchets and minims previously in the first piano lesson of this course, although we didn’t go into the rhythmic detail that much.

Apart from the crotchet, there are many other different types of notes as well: all of which represent different length beats. All beats are related to each other by divisions of two – which is why people often associate being good at math with being good at music (although this certainly isn’t a rule!). Don’t be put off by that though. The math required for music is extremely straight forward, so you won’t find it difficult even if you flunked math from high school onwards!

1 semibreve is a whole note

2 minims: half notes

4 crotchets: quarter notes

8 quavers: eighth notes

16 semiquavers: sixteenth notes

So, in descending order, each note is half the value of the note above it. For example, a quaver is half a crotchet. So: quaver + quaver = crotchet. And a quaver × 8 = semibreve.

Pretty simple isn’t it? But it makes your life so much easier if you understand how it works!

To understand how crotchets, quavers, semiquavers and all the rest fit into a piece of music, you need to first learn about beats per bar.

When you look at a piece of music, you will see the time signature positioned after the key signature. Time signatures look like a mathematical fraction, except without the line in the middle. The number at the top indicates the number of beats per bar, while the number below indicates the ‘type’ of beat. As there are 2 minims to every semibreve, a minim count is represented by the number ‘2’. Similarly, crotchet beats are represented by the number ‘4’ and quavers by ‘8’. So if you see the time signature 2/2, this means there are two minim beats to every bar, so you would clap 1 2/ 1 2. And to give another example, 6/8 would mean six quaver (eighth) beats to a bar, e.g. 123456/123456. The smaller the beat, the quicker each count is.

One of the most common time signatures is 4/4. This means there are four crotchet beats to a bar.

Try clapping a few bars of four beats, with the emphasis on the first beat:

1234/ 1234/ 1234

Then try clapping a 4/4 bar with quavers:

- you should be clapping twice as fast now to fit the eight beats in.

And this bar, with both quavers and crotchets:

This next exercise is a variation on a tune composed by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

Haydn is often referred to as ‘Papa’ Haydn, because he is considered to have been fundamental to the development of the string quartet and the symphony, setting the stage for Mozart and Beethoven.

The following piece is a catchy tune based on one of Haydn’s works that gives you good practice at playing a rhythm of quavers and crotchets.

Because it is in the key of C, the piece only uses notes that are in the C scale. Watch out for the fingering in the second bar – 4321 231.

For the note B, cross your index finger over your thumb, keeping your hand in the same position until you play low G - when you will have to stretch your hand down.

The third exercise is in 3/4 timing. This means there are three beats to every bar.

Count it out first. Clap the rhythm:

123/ 123/ 12+3+/123/12 3/ 12/ 3/ 1+23/12 3

The final exercise in this lesson is quite a tricky rhythm. This type of rhythm is not that common in pop music, but it is really useful to know if you want to play classical music or folk.

In this lesson, we are just going to clap out the rhythm. In later lessons we will start playing a tune to 6/8 timing.

123 456/12 3 45 6/ 123 456/ 123 456

To finish this lesson, play this dance in 3/4 time. 3/4 timing is often referred to as ‘waltz’ timing, because it is most often used for waltzes. One of the most famous classical waltzes of all is ‘The Blue Danube’ by Johann Strauss. If you don’t know it, find a recording, as this sweeping and majestic dance is a classic example of 3/4 time – and I’m sure you’ll recognize it when you hear it!

When you have a look at the music below, you will notice that the first bar only has 1 beat. This is known as a ‘pick-up’ beat. A pickup beat is a phrase that starts before the beginning of the first bar. A pickup can be one note or a longer phrase, the only requirement is that it is the first bar and that it contains less than the full quota of beats.

This bar is almost always completed at the end of the piece with a short bar containing the remaining beats. As you can see, in this piece the last bar contains 2 beats.

Remember to clap the rhythm first.

Glossary of Terms

Ragtime: A late-19 th to early-20th century style of piano music exemplified by its syncopated, ‘ragged’ right-hand melody.

Reggae: Form of popular music of Jamaican origin, characterized by syncopated rhythms and influenced by blues and calypso music

Rap: Rhythmic chanting consisting of improvised rhymes performed to a rhythmic accompaniment

Swing: A style of jazz played by big bands popular in the 1930s. Swing has flowing rhythms and is generally less complex than later styles of jazz.